R Gopalakrishnan: Boosting industry-academia linkages

R Gopalakrishnan

Alongside the Make in India show in Mumbai, it has been reported that the 25,000 bronze cladding parts for the 182-metre-high memorial statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel are being fabricated at the foundry of Jiangxi Toqine Metal Handicrafts Company Limited in Nanchang, China. The company is obviously competent, as its website says it is “a full-service bronze sculpture foundry with 29 years’ experience”. The steel frame that is to be contoured is also being procured from China. Sardar Patel made in China!

According to one persuasive report (World Bank, Jose Guimón, 2013), “Collaboration between academia andindustry is increasingly a critical component of efficient national innovation systems… It is the role of public policy to foster such linkages… Developing countries face even greater barriers to such alliances… Collaboration betweenuniversities and industries is critical for skills development, innovation, technology transfers and entrepreneurship.”

The nation needs more discourse about industry-academia collaboration. IIT alumnus Shail Kumar has authored a recent book on higher education (Building Golden India) in which he argues the case for better collaboration. The National Democratic Alliance government has sponsored the Prime Minister’s Fellowship Scheme for doctoral research, a welcome public-private partnership initiative. The truth is we need a more positive mindset all around.

I recall a 1983 industry-academia symposium hosted by Hindustan Lever Research Foundation(Pulse Production, 1984). The symposium emphasised the emerging and critical need to grow more pulses, India being a vegetarian and protein-deficient nation. Several advocacy papers were circulated. However, not much happened for 25 years until a supply crisis hit the country in 2010. I was lucky to leverage my HLL exposure and helped Rallis India start its Grow More Pulses programme in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Thanks to my watching the former HLL chairman and, later, director of global research at Unilever, Ashok Ganguly, and reading his book, Business-driven Research & Development, I have had some exposure to the subject. I also experienced the technology response to the acute shortage of soap-making oils through minor oils development in the 1970s; the development of Tata Swachh, the low-cost bacterial/virus water purifier through rice husk ash and nano-silver technology (only 27 paise per litre, gravity-driven). According to the World Economic Forum, 2008, India ranks 43 in terms of industry-academia interaction, compared with China (23), Japan (21), South Korea (12) and the US (1) (Reinventing India, R A Mashelkar, 2011). There is hidden power if universities re-engineer themselves to meet national grand challenges like Swachh Bharat, Make in India and Digital India.

In a welcome initiative, the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Bharat Shikshan Mandalrecently hosted a Research for Resurgence symposium at Nagpur for 50 university vice-chancellors. Some observations: first, everyone concurred about lowering the barriers to collaboration; second, participants spoke about topics like our social attitude, our educational system, the education ministry, and how Indian parents raise their children as though it is an India issue whereas it is a global one; third, it took some effort to steer the group towards what they could do when they returned to their offices. Their conclusion to convert their academic team into positive collaboration seekers was an energising, though self-evident one.

In the summer of 2010, MIT Sloan Management Review carried an impressive article, “Best Practices for Industry-University Collaboration” (Reprint number 51416). The paper was based on a three-year study of the experiences and perspectives of 25 research-intensive companies, who were involved with over 100 university collaboration projects. As always the “Seven Keys to Collaboration Success” read like motherhood statements, but they are eminently sensible and bear review. Apart from ideas such as defining the project’s strategic context, sharing the vision with both the university and the company teams, establishing strong communications and review mechanisms, the most striking was “select boundary-spanning project managers with certain attributes”.


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